Civil Rights Lawyers Organize a National Response to Hate Crime

By Murphy, Clyde E. | Corrections Today, August 1999 | Go to article overview

Civil Rights Lawyers Organize a National Response to Hate Crime


Murphy, Clyde E., Corrections Today


BIAS VIOLENCE IS SEVERELY UNDERREPORTED BY VICTIMS, PRIMARILY BECAUSE OF IGNORANCE OF THE LAW, DISTRUST AND FEAR OF LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICIALS, AND LANGUAGE AND CULTURAL BARRIERS.

In 1963, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law Inc. was founded at the request of President John F. Kennedy to create an organization through which members of the private bar could take the fight for equal rights out of the streets and into the courts. That decade saw tumultuous change, with major civil rights legislation enacted, creating sweeping protections for minorities.

Today, Lawyers' Committee offices are located in Boston, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Antonio, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Many of these committees have extensive pro bono programs that multiply the impact of sparse budgets many times over. The eight affiliate committees have a shared mission to protect the civil rights of indigent, minority and disadvantaged people to facilitate their participation in the social, economic and political systems of our nation.

As early as 1982, the Lawyers' Committees began to respond to hate crimes. In June 1999, the committees announced the formation of a coordinated response, generously funded by the Ford Foundation, through which they will work with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to eradicate this destructive and insidious problem.

HATE CRIME - THE PROBLEM

Since the passage of the 1990 Hate Crime Statistics Act, which mandated FBI collection of hate crime data, law enforcement agencies across the country have submitted bias violence data. The most recent report (1997) states that agencies representing 83 percent of the national population furnished information. The report documents 8,049 violent hate incidents, which affected more than 10,000 victims. More than half of these incidents were motivated by race, followed by religion (17 percent); sexual orientation (14 percent); and ethnicity (10 percent). Seventy percent were crimes against persons (rather than property). Reports from many sources further confirm that bias crimes are disproportionately committed by youths.

Reports of bias violence incidents are low. Bias violence is severely underreported by victims, particularly gay men, lesbians and members of immigrant groups, primarily because of ignorance of the law, distrust and fear of law enforcement officials, and language and cultural barriers. Bias violence incidents also are underrecorded by law enforcement agencies. According to Brian Levin, civil rights attorney and assistant professor at the University of California, San Bernardino, 70 percent to 90 percent of hate crimes are not recorded by the police, clue to ignorance, prejudice, denial, lack of an agency review and investigation system, and poor or nonexistent training.

Numerous studies show that hate crimes, in contrast to crimes in general, are likely to involve more violence, multiple offenders, greater psychological trauma to victims, a larger expenditure of resources to resolve and a heightened risk of social disorder. In the murder of James Byrd Jr. in Texas and, more recently, in the attempted murder of Dontrell Langston and Austin Hansen-Tyler in Wisconsin, the offenders reportedly committed the crimes intending to incite racial unrest.

Because victims are targeted on the basis of their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, disability or gender, all members of the targeted group, along with the direct victims, suffer injury and intimidation. The entire community suffers the stigma of hate, and the climate of inclusion in America is damaged, unless and until the crimes are convincingly redressed.

DEFINING A NATIONAL RESPONSE

To combat bias violence, attorneys and other advocates must work with law enforcement officials to ensure input from survivors and to see that perpetrators are brought to justice. Advocacy to improve laws and policies is necessary. …

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